The large sign was front and center, but no one seemed able to read it. The scenic turnout was crowded with retirees, young couples, and other tourists. Chipmunks scampered over the rocks, gorging on Fritos, sunflower seeds, and bits of doughnut. Clark’s Nutcrackers swooped down to nab the handouts before the rodents could grab them. There was even a bird perched hopefully on the sign. What do you mean, “Please, don’t feed the animals”?
I just spent four days at Rocky Mountain National Park. The prolonged warmth this fall has beckoned me outside, and I wanted to catch the bull elk with their harems before winter drove them to lower altitudes. The aspen were just beginning to glow golden, the tundra and meadows were a soft coppery russet, and a fresh dusting of snow whitened the highest peaks. It was absolutely beautiful.
I took plenty of animal photos—various birds, pikas, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Yellow-bellied Marmots, and dozens of elk—but the chipmunks easily won the personality contest. At one point, I was sitting on a rock wall edging a viewpoint parking lot when I felt a dainty pitter-patter on my lap. I looked down to discover two chipmunks sitting in my lap. They dashed off when they realized I wasn’t going to provide a snack.
I was actually pretty dismayed to find people disregarding the signs posted throughout the park, and feeding these animals junk food. The problem is, feeding the animals is fun. The rodents are incredibly cute— they’ve perfected just the right combination of pitiful begging and cocky attitude. They’re hard to resist, but for their own sakes we must harden our hearts.
Chipmunks don’t actually hibernate. Rather, they stash seeds, acorns and other food items in underground stockpiles. At regular intervals from fall to spring, these rodents rouse from a state of torpor—a kind of suspended animation—for a mid-winter snack. It is important, therefore, that the food they hoard last until it is needed. I highly doubt that potato chips and bread crusts will be in edible condition come December or February.
Of course, the nutritive value of human junk food is no better for chipmunks than it is for people. And like the rest of us, they prefer the easy-to-get, oily and salty snacks to wholesome nuts and seeds, dried mushrooms and berries. This leaves the animals susceptible to disease and more likely to succumb to harsh winter conditions.
There were a number of visitors who were offering peanuts, sunflower seeds, and other more “natural” foods, thinking this would solve the problem. It is an improvement, but there are other issues.
Anytime people feed wild animals, there is the problem of over-familiarity. Like other rodents, chipmunks carry diseases that can affect humans. One prevalent example is bubonic plague. We really shouldn’t want to be that close and personal. Animals can also bite. And chipmunks zeroing in on breadcrumbs and chips aren’t watching out for predators—or cars.
I realize that I’m unlikely to change such a common practice as feeding the chipmunks hanging out at the roadside turnoffs. I just hope a few more people will stop and realize that park rangers aren’t trying to spoil our fun. Maybe, just maybe, park rules prohibiting feeding wildlife are there for a reason.